The video cover letter for my dream internship—a recording that lasted less than three minutes and took minimal equipment and skill to produce—might have been the single most important factor in launching my career.
That sounds like an exaggeration, but it really isn’t. I still work with the company where I got that internship (no longer an intern), and my video cover letter still comes up in conversation—and it’s been two years since I first uploaded it!
What makes a killer video cover letter so powerful? When done right, it adds explosive fire power to your job application. It demonstrates hard skills (like videography and editing) as well as soft skills (like communication and following instructions), and can show a company your commitment to its values even if you lack direct experience in the field. It can help hiring managers make the cognitive leap from seeing you as an applicant to envisioning you as a possible employee—all while adding more flavor from your personality than a paper resume might.
But me? I didn’t want to do it. (In fact, I remember grimacing when I read the part of the job description that requested a video cover letter.) At the time, I thought they were a bunch of hooey that allowed hiring managers to judge people based on their appearances, and only truly favored those with fancy video equipment or prior careers as YouTube stars. I didn’t have either of those assets, and thought I was doomed to lose this internship before I even applied for it.
Thankfully, my husband wouldn’t have it. He knew I wanted the position, so he pushed me into making the video—and thank God he did.
If you’re looking up how to make a killer video cover letter, that means you’re getting serious about creating one—which also means you’ll now have the tools to dramatically improve your chances of earning a job with a video cover letter by the time you finish reading this post. You most likely have the tools you need to create one already, and just need to harness them the right way. Let’s get into it.
Step 0: Is a video cover letter even required?
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT make a video cover letter if nobody asked for one in the job application. While you might think it will help you stand out, it’s a risky choice.
Why? Your hiring manager might get sour thinking you don’t know how to follow directions—or worse, they might not even spot it on your application (making all your hard work go to waste).
It’s harder to stand out when you can’t rely on a strong medium like video, but it’s possible. If there’s no video cover letter requirement in your job application, work on standing out in your paper cover letter, job questionnaires, or your portfolio if the application requests work samples.
Go check your job application right now. I’ll wait. Does it say you should send in a video cover letter (even if it’s optional)? Good. Let’s keep going.
1. Consider your purpose
Nah, I’m not trying to get existential on you. But if you’re making a serious commitment to a killer video cover letter, you do need to look inward.
A strong sense of purpose is the foundation behind any cover letter. You’ll need to ask yourself the most important question of all: Why do you want this job? (Hint: if it’s “because I need a job,” you might need to rethink your priorities.)
In my own case, I wanted this job because the company’s philosophy and lifestyle made some valuable contributions to my life until that point—and I knew I could talk extensively about that positive impact (which you’ll see this later in the recording). Companies like when you have a personal connection between you and their mission and values, so reflect on that connection.
2. Outline the story
A video cover letter is basically a visual story—and if you want to tell an organized story, you need structure.
Write down (even freewrite) the story you want to communicate to the hiring manager:
- How did you find out about the company?
- What got you interested in their mission and values?
- How do you hope to build a relationship with the company in the future?
- What personal skills and assets do you want the company to notice in you?
These are just a few questions you might want to answer to tell the story of you and the company. If the job posting has any special requirements for questions you need to answer in the video (or if you have any special circumstances you want to address), you’ll want to incorporate those details too. Write it all down and spare no details.
3. Clean up the story and make a script
Break down your long-winded story into shorter, bite-sized sections. You’ll want to be more concise on video so you don’t bore your audience with a drawn-out story.
Break up your story into topic-specific paragraphs. Read through each one and consider how you’d shorten it into one or two sentences. For example, I could talk forever about my previous jobs leading up to this internship, but instead I shortened it into a few power-packed sentences:
After college, I thought I’d land some copywriting job at an agency or a corporation. But… then I became a barista. Then I became a teacher’s assistant. And, then after a few more jobs, I ended up here. In the Caribbean. In Grenada.
4. Make a storyboard
Never made a storyboard before? Yeah, me either—but in this case, it was essential for my video cover letter’s success.
A storyboard translates the outline you made into a video-friendly format. As you tell your story on video, visualize the kind of shots you want to connect to each part of dialogue. For example, if the beginning of your story says, “I’ve always been interested in health and wellness,” you might want a shot of you exercising or preparing a healthy meal.
In your storyboard, you also want to describe the angle of your shot, who or what else is in the scene with you, and any other pertinent details. Here’s a loose example of a shot I created for my storyboard.
“I was the grammar guru for the documentary we produced on migrant farmworkers.”
*Shot from documentary of migrants working*
It might help you to draw the storyboard on a piece of paper: create two columns, with one side for your scripted lines and another for the scenes you want to show while you say those lines. In my case, I switched back and forth between talking directly to the camera and showing examples of whatever I was talking about.
A storyboard can save you so much time. When you’re finally ready to record, you won’t be shooting random video without a plan—and the final product will match the theme and vision that you created from the start.
5. Rehearse the crap out of your script
Again, it’s legwork that you can do beforehand to save lots of time before filming. Practice again and again, just like you would for any other presentation. Be aware of fidgeting, any verbal slips like “um” or “like,” hair twirling, or anything else that will distract your viewer from the central message. I like to practice in front of a mirror so I can evaluate my delivery method in real time.
When you practice, make sure you slow down your dialogue. Pretend you have a refrigerator on your back (something my band teacher used to tell us in high school to make us play slower). 99 percent of the time, you’re probably talking faster than you realize—so reel it back.
6. Start recording
Bonus points here if you have friends with videography knowhow that you can recruit for your cause. If not, don’t panic. You can convert just about any modern technology you have on-hand into passable video equipment.
I was lucky enough to have access to a nice camera, but most iPhones these days can produce high-quality video—so you probably already have a good recording device available to you. You’ll probably notice in my video that I didn’t have a tripod, but there are lots of tutorials online for making them out of household items.
For sound, rig your own mic system like I did: download a voice recording app on your phone and plug in a pair of earbuds. When it’s time to record, put the phone in your pocket and weave the cord though your shirt, pinning the mic portion on your lapel while keeping the rest of the earbuds hidden under your clothes. You’ll record much better sound, and your camera can get more types of shots without struggling to pick up your voice. Then, you’ll just have to line up the audio clip with your video in post-production. (To be clear, this setup requires two phones, if you’re using one phone to record.) With this setup, I was able to get clear audio of my voice even though it was a windy day when we recorded.
Aim for quality scenery, too, since it will cost you less time later in editing: work in spaces with lots of natural light (although not direct sunlight). Put on some makeup (probably more than you normally would, since the camera can pick up more imperfections), and dress snappy. Do everything you can to look clean and professional.
7. Don’t settle for “good enough”
If you’re new to recording video like I was, you’ll feel annoyed at the amount of time it takes to film something like a video cover letter. I had to try again and again to get the shots I needed, and it was especially challenging because my toddler as running and talking as we tried to shoot. There were even a few scenes that we tried to film in special locations and had to scrap because they didn’t work for some reason or another.
But don’t give up: you put in the work to create your artistic vision, and you shouldn’t settle for a “good enough” shot. Evaluate your clips as you go (keeping in mind that you can edit parts of them later), and keep working until they match your standards. Being stubborn about quality is going to help you stand out from other applicants.
8. Edit, edit, edit
When you’re done filming, use your clips and your storyboard to create the final version of the video. I liked using iMovie because it was pretty easy to learn, but you can find and use any editing software you’re comfortable with.
Weave in non-copyrighted music where it’s appropriate, too. (I liked the feel of music from NoCopyrightSounds, but the vast library of music from Kevin McCleod is another popular choice for video.) Always make sure you’re following the rules when using copyrighted music—as long as you have permission to use the track and credit where appropriate, it’s a great way to enhance video.
I uploaded my final product to YouTube as a private video so I could easily share the link with the hiring manager. Wherever you store your video cover letter, I recommend keeping it on some cloud-based system—video files are usually way too large to send via email, and you don’t want to put up any barriers between your hiring manager and their ability to watch your amazing video.
I worked so, so hard on this, but my work paid off and I got the interview—and eventually the internship. Here’s the final product that got me noticed:
Liked this how-to? You might also like my post on How to Write a Killer Cold Email (With a Killer Example).
Have you ever created a video cover letter before? What tips can you share? I’d love to get your comments!